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Jewish World Review May 11, 2004 / 21 Iyar, 5764

John H. Fund

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Will Sen. Kennedy turn out to be a political liability for John Kerry? | Liberals can't resist trying to paint President Bush as a modern-day Richard Nixon, leading a secretive White House bogged down in a foreign war with an Iraqi prison roughly substituting for My Lai. "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam," thundered liberal lion Ted Kennedy last month as he accused Mr. Bush of "the biggest credibility gap since Richard Nixon." Paul Krugman of the New York Times calls the Iraq war "the worst political scandal in American history, worse than Watergate."

But Republicans have their own "oldie but goodie" story line to follow. Of course they compare Mr. Kerry to another dour Massachusetts liberal who failed to connect with the country: Michael Dukakis. But they are going further and portraying him as a political protégé of Sen. Kennedy, the biggest conservative bogeyman ever. "John Kerry is the taller, thinner version of Teddy Kennedy," drawls Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Indeed, the Kerry campaign often resembles a subsidiary of the Kennedy political empire. Its inner circle is led by Mary Beth Cahill, who was Mr. Kennedy's chief of staff until six months ago. Press secretary Stephanie Cutter performed the same duties for Mr. Kennedy. And Bob Shrum, who has worked closely with Mr. Kennedy since he wrote his famous "the dream shall never die" defense of liberalism at the 1980 Democratic Convention, is the campaign's chief consultant and shapes virtually all of the candidate's messages.

The Washington Post quoted Ms. Cahill as saying that she was brought on board last November when the Kerry campaign was in meltdown mode because Mr. Kennedy, who was already traveling with the candidate, wanted to "further his investment." There is enough of a symbiotic relationship between the two men that Republicans will no doubt soon be making the same unfair insinuations that Mr. Kerry is a puppet of Mr. Kennedy that Democrats make about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

It's therefore not surprising that Bush critics are acutely sensitive to suggestions that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Kennedy are closely linked. Last month on MSNBC's "Hardball," I pointed out that Mr. Kennedy was Mr. Kerry's best friend in the Senate, and thus President Bush had taken a shot at both men in rejecting any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. "You're joining in the propaganda offensive against Ted Kennedy tonight," host Chris Matthews erupted. "Do you honestly believe . . . that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy are close friends? Is that what you believe?"

Well, it's what Mr. Kerry believes. "He has been a great mentor, teacher, and always a terrific colleague," he says of the man he calls "the voice of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." That voice has a receptive ear indeed. Mr. Kennedy often calls Mr. Kerry on his cell phone before 7 a.m. with political suggestions. "That often led Kerry to call top aides with fresh orders," reported USA Today. I personally saw how Kennedy appearances for his colleague galvanized the Democratic grass roots in Iowa and helped Mr. Kerry break out of the pack after Howard Dean got in touch with his inner volcano.

Mr. Shrum consistently pushes an aggressive class-warfare storyline in which the rich and powerful are holding down the aspirations of ordinary people. His candidates are always "fighters," whether it's Dick Gephardt railing against Korean imports or Al Gore bellowing about the "people versus the powerful" or John Kerry denouncing "Benedict Arnold corporations" shipping jobs overseas. Tom Pauken, who served on the Georgetown University debating team with Mr. Shrum, recalls that his teammate "was always an idealistic liberal who believed the promise of America had been stolen by reactionary forces. He hasn't changed one bit in 40 years." The same is true of Ted Kennedy.

Not all Democrats are enamored of Mr. Shrum's influence. Tony Coelho, the former congressman who ran Mr. Gore's campaign until June 2000, says that Bush operatives are "painting Kerry as a liberal and it's succeeding." He told the Associated Press he remains optimistic about Mr. Kerry's chances, but said the campaign structure makes him uncomfortable. Harold Ickes, who managed Bill Clinton's successful 1996 re-election effort, told the New York Observer in February that "I don't think the special-interest message cuts. I don't think people have any interest in that." Mr. Shrum isn't returning phone calls about his strategy, but he once told me that "standing up for the little guy has always been the essence of the Democratic Party."

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Other journalists enjoy firing rhetorical bursts at the Shrum-Kerry fixation with class warfare. "The least successful form of populism is economic," says Joe Klein of Time. "Optimism, opportunity and don't fence-me-in freedom are much closer to the American bone." Mickey Kaus of skewers Mr. Kerry for "copying a CD-ROM of consultant Bob Shrum's old speeches into his hard drive."

Democrats in crucial heartland states voice similar complaints. They fret about Mr. Kerry's close ties with Sen. Kennedy, as well as the Democrats' choice to hold their convention in Boston, the center of the Kennedy power base and a cultural lightning rod. "Independents are looking for ways to identify Kerry as a moderate to middle-of-the-road Democrat, and Sen. Kennedy is not going to help with that," says Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. "Ted's not a senator from the Midwest." Dennis White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told the Baltimore Sun that Mr. Kennedy "could probably do a lot better things for Mr. Kerry in his own state, where they love him."

Mr. Shrum has responded to these criticisms by flavoring the Kerry message with some Clintonian centrism. While not retreating from Kennedy-school liberalism, Mr. Kerry is also making bows to business interests with such proposals as a cut in corporate tax rates. His new ads focus on Mr. Kerry's biography, because, as Shrum deputy Michael Donilon says, the candidate has "demonstrated great strength and really sound judgment in very tough situations."

Mr. Kerry pulled off an amazing recovery in the Democratic primaries by lashing himself to his Vietnam service and to Mr. Kennedy. But now he will face pressure to distance himself from a liberal voting record that last year the National Journal put to the left of even Mr. Kennedy's. Columnist William Safire has puckishly predicted that under a President Kerry, his Senate mentor would own the Department of Health and Human Services and Ms. Cahill "would be a shoo-in for White House chief of staff." As the campaign rolls on, watch for Republicans to play up the Kennedy-Kerry connection. How Mr. Kerry responds may determine whether he follows his first political hero, John F. Kennedy, into the White House or merely joins Michael Dukakis in leading seminars at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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©2001, John H. Fund